Peacekeepers and Conquerors: The Army Officer Corps on the American Frontier, 1821–1846 by Samuel J. Watson (review)
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Peacekeepers and Conquerors: The Army Officer Corps on the American Frontier, 1821–1846. By Samuel J. Watson. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2013. Pp. 688. $49.95 cloth)

This is the second volume of a monumental two-volume study of the U.S. Army officer corps along the American frontier, from the Canadian border to the Florida swamps, and from the northern Great Plains to the Texan-Mexican frontier. Watson provides a vivid and detailed accounting of the experiences of the army policing the [End Page 124] borderlands, acting as dutiful and disciplined agents of the national government, controlling both unruly white frontiersmen and pressured Indians, and preserving law and order in spite of aggressive white westward expansion. Despite their frequent frustration, disillusionment, and discontent with state and federal policymakers and potentially erratic and unclear government policies, the army officer corps operated as effective, albeit hesitant, peacekeepers, diplomats, and, ultimately, as the crucial component of a peaceful, efficient, and controlled westward expansion. Conflict with local white citizens and their elected officials, however, proved as taxing as preventing Indian-white warfare, intertribal struggles, and potential filibusters and border violations. Whether dealing with Indians, aggressive white Americans, or British and Mexican troops, army officers exercised remarkable restraint and caution; patience and composure defined army activities at every juncture.

Watson portrays the army officer corps as considerably less bellicose than other white citizens, who were often deemed as unscrupulous, partisan, and rapacious by officers. The officers displayed a distinct disdain for white settlers and contempt for populist disregard of law and order, while often demonstrating a deep respect and even empathy for their adversaries, whether Indians or Mexicans. The author depicts army officers as more objective and “morally upright” than frontiersmen and the state and local elected officials with whom they frequently clashed. After 1821, a decline of aggressive expansionistic sentiment dominated the officer corps, as they became increasingly ambivalent toward, even suspicious of, white territorial expansion. Uncertainty and skepticism over federal Indian policy and the pace and process of Indian removal only complicated matters further for the army. Thus, tension, frustration, and dissension defined civil-military relations during Jackson’s presidency, but this uneasy relationship declined substantially during the successive Jackson–era administrations, as the army succeeded in securing its insulation and autonomy from constant civilian intervention.

Military subordination and accountability to civilian national [End Page 125] authority, representative government, and the constitution was, according to Watson, the most important dimension of the professional development of the army in the Jacksonian era. As the army officer corps labored to maintain national sovereignty, secure American borders, police the frontier, and prepare for white settlement, they acted as disinterested servants to the national government, always maintaining political neutrality and nonpartisanship, avoiding political entanglements and party battles, and keeping a conservative realism regarding American foreign policy. Army officers were, Watson declares, classical republicans advancing liberal democracy; they were exemplars of classical virtue in an era of increasing acquisitive individualism, rising majoritarian democracy, and adamant state sovereignty. Words such as integrity, reputation, honor, duty, gentility, discipline, service, and responsibility characterize army officers in the Age of Jackson, and the army officer corps usually appears as the unapproachable paragon of virtue which can do little wrong, always an icon of honorable behavior, morality, and humanity.

There is an underlying political bias throughout the work, however, as the author clearly supports Hamiltonian centralism, Madisonian nationalism, and Clay Whiggery over Jeffersonian and Jacksonian Democracy. Watson often displays some derision for a liberal, majoritarian, populist, democratic government, one responsive to and operating solely on the demands of its citizens. The efficacy of a strong federal government and an aversion for the compact theory of the Union, prevails throughout. The harsh criticism, often unwarranted, of Jackson and his contribution to American democracy detracts somewhat from the story; Robert Remini’s masterful three-volume biography of Jackson should accompany a reading of Watson’s book.

Still, this is a magisterial study of the American frontier in the Age of Jackson, and it should be required reading for courses in American military history, westward expansion, borderlands, federal Indian policy, and Indian removal. Watson clearly possesses an unrivalled...


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